EPA Targets Airborne LeadMay 2, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) just proposed a stricter health standard for airborne lead, saying that current allowable concentrations do not adequately protect public health, especially children. The lead health standard has not been changed since its initial requirement was enacted 30 years ago. Since then, lead pollution dropped substantially, largely because lead was banned in gasoline; however, lead emissions remain an air quality problem, largely stemming from industrial sources, according to the EPA.
"Our air isn't lead-free yet, so our efforts must continue," said EPA Deputy Administrator Marcus Peacock. The EPA proposal will reduce allowable airborne lead concentrations by up to 93% from current standards and is expected to be finalized mid-September. According to Peacock, lead emissions in the air declined 98% since the first standard was imposed in 1978. Peacock added that approximately 1,300 tons of lead is still released yearly and research confirms even low levels of exposure to children is damaging.
An earlier EPA staff report—developed in late December 2006—suggested a variety of options. One such option was to eliminate the lead standard; however, because the EPA has recently been criticized by health advocates for not being tough enough on mercury and smog air requirements, a panel of EPA science advisors strongly recommended that the lead standard be “substantially lowered” and toughened, not eliminated. The proposed standard for allowable concentrations of lead in the air is recommended for between 0.10 to 0.30 micrograms per cubic meter; the current human health standard is 1.5 micrograms per cubic meter. This means if the air does not meet the new standard, it will not be considered protective of public health and state or local governments must find ways to reduce lead emissions.
Many consider lead poisoning to be one of the most important chronic environmental illnesses affecting children today. Exposure to lead in children and unborn children can cause brain and nervous system damage, behavioral and learning problems, slowed growth, hearing problems, headaches, mental and physical retardation, and behavioral and other health problems. Lead is also known to cause cancer and reproductive harm and, in adults, lead can damage the nervous system. Despite efforts to control lead and the success in decreasing lead poisoning, serious cases still occur. Once poisoned, no organ system is immune. Of particular concern is the developing brain because negative influences can have long-lasting effects and can continue well into puberty and beyond. Lead can be inhaled or ingested once it settles out of the air and once in the body, is rapidly absorbed into the bloodstream.
The lead standard was the first air quality standard for health to be issued under the Clean Air Act in 1978. Although standards for ozone or soot have changed, the lead standard has not, despite the fact that legally health standards should be reviewed every five years. In 2004, a federal court, in a lawsuit brought by the Missouri Coalition for the Environment—a group whose members live near a major industrial lead emitter—directed the EPA to review the lead standard.
The court ordered the EPA to issue a proposed rule by May 1 and also directed that the EPA issue its final rule by September.